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Finally his turn

Amato begins task of turning Wolfpack around

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Posted: Thursday March 23, 2000 11:19 PM

  Sophomore Ray Robinson was the second-leading rusher for the Wolfpack last year. Chris Covatta/Allsport

By Tim Peeler, Special to CNNSI.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- New North Carolina State football coach Chuck Amato and his million-dollar coaching staff haven't had time yet to invest in the local economy.

In fact, they are all living in the same hotel, just a few blocks away from campus, because they just haven't had time to look for houses yet. Most of their time in the last two months has been devoted to getting to know each other and preparing for their first spring practice with the Wolfpack, which began Tuesday.

Amato, a throwback to two of N.C. State's most successful eras, has waited for more than 20 years to become the head coach at his alma mater. He was a linebacker for the Earl Edwards-coached team that reached No. 3 in the polls and won the Liberty Bowl in 1967. Amato, a senior that year, invented the school's famed "White Shoes Defense."

When his playing career was over, he joined a young Lou Holtz in 1971, which began a streak of four consecutive bowl games. Eventually, Amato became the defensive coordinator for Holtz-successor Bo Rein.

When Rein left the school for LSU in 1979, Amato wanted to take his place, but the school hired Monte Kiffin. When Kiffin left three years later, Amato wanted to take his place, but the school hired Tom Reed. When Reed left three years later, Amato wanted to take his place, but the school hired Dick Sheridan, who stayed seven years, but quit in 1992 and turned over the team to his quarterbacks coach, Mike O'Cain. After compiling a 42-41 record in seven years, O'Cain was fired last November.

Amato, though stung by his alma mater's rejection, wasn't hurting. For the last 18 years, he helped Bobby Bowden build college football's most consistent winner at Florida State, essentially running the program that has finished in the top four of the final polls for the last 12 years.

He wasn't even N.C. State's top choice this time around. The school courted two other alumni -- Pittsburgh Steeler coach Bill Cowher, who was coached by Amato in the mid-1970s, and Georgia head coach Jim Donnan, who was Amato's teammate from 1965-67. The school offered both coaches in excess of $1 million to take the job, but after stringing the school along during a 43-day coaching search, both turned it down.

So two days after FSU won the second national championship by beating Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Amato finally got his call home.

"I have been preparing to become a head football coach for 30 years," the 53-year-old Amato said at the time. "I am ready."

Bowden, who entrusted him to run the Seminole program for much of the last 10 years, gave Amato the highest recommendation possible.

"I don't know anybody more qualified to be a head coach than Chuck Amato," Bowden said. "For years, he has done a lot of a head coach's job here because I have turned so many responsibilities over to him. He is one of the big factors that has allowed me to coach at my age.

"I threw a lot at him and he didn't dodge any of it."

He didn't have time to dodge much when he returned to Raleigh. The school spent 43 days trying to hire a replacement for the fired Mike O'Cain, who landed had already landed the offensive coordinator position down the road at the University of North Carolina by the time Amato was hired.

Amato worked with Joe Pate, the lone assistant coach holdover from O'Cain's staff, to sign 18 players by the Feb. 3 National Signing Day. Many people in Raleigh noticed immediately that Amato signed four players from Miami -- the football-rich territory he recruited for FSU -- while the Seminoles signed none.

He also installed FSU's offseason workout program for his new team, requiring all the players to show up at 5:50 a.m. for a one-hour conditioning program. By the time spring practice began, the team had shed nearly 400 pounds.

Amato also turned the heads of every athletic director in the country when he started plucking his staff from Brigham Young, Marshall, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and a couple of NFL teams. He lured BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow away from the position he held for 22 years. He snatched Doc Holliday away from West Virginia. He even hired N.C. State graduate Buddy Green away from his first head coaching job at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

And he paid dearly. While accepting for himself a total package that was worth less than half what the school offered Donnan and Cowher, Amato got assurances that he could spend big money for his staff. Chow will make $165,000, which isn't as much as the $200,000 Georgia Tech offensive Ralph Friedgen earns, but is still makes Chow one of the highest paid assistants in the country. Eight of Amato's nine coaches will make at least $100,000.

All told, N.C. State has the highest paid assistant coaching staff in the country at $1,007,00, just a little more than the $1 million Mack Brown pays his staff at Texas.

"We wanted to make a statement about our commitment to football, and I think we're doing that," said N.C. State athletics director Les Robinson. "People have been talking about N.C. State football for some time, and that can't be ignored."

Of course, Amato needs a bigger commitment from the school if he wants to compete in the ACC. The Wolfpack's 34-year-old Carter-Finley Stadium is badly outdated. The school has had a plan in place to upgrade and expand the stadium for more than seven years, but the price tag is getting closer and closer to $100 million, money that will have to be raised from booster club donors.

Amato says the school will break ground on a football facilities center later this spring, but this was the same school that took nearly 15 years to get started on a new basketball arena. The $158 million Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, located next door to Carter-Finley, opened last fall to rave reviews.

Now, as Amato begins his first spring practice with the Wolfpack this week, is looking for a similar commitment for the Wolfpack football program, one of only two schools in the ACC that has beaten Florida State since it joined the league in 1991.

Repeating that feat -- the Wolfpack beat Florida State 24-7 in Raleigh in 1998 -- won't be easy. Green plans to revamp the defense, changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3 for the nine starters he has returning form last year's 6-6 team. Chow wants to install the same high-powered offense he ran with the Cougars, but none of the Wolfpack's three quarterbacks have been in the program longer than a year.

"It's pretty hard to believe," Chow said. "I have never used a quarterback that's younger than a redshirt sophomore."

But the offense, even though it has only five returning starters, boasts the ACC's last two Freshmen of the Year, junior tailback Ray Robinson and sophomore wide receiver Koren Robinson. It's not a deep unit, however, and Chow and his staff will spend the next 28 days trying to find out just how much it can do with an inexperienced quarterback, a thin receiving corps and an offensive line that lost four of its five starters.

Maybe this isn't the dream job Amato thought it would be, but he's waited this long to get his chance. Now, he's just eager to make the most of it.

Tim Peeler covers the ACC for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.

 
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